Artisanal Power: How to Avert a Threatened Mass Casualty Event

9 May 2024

By Lucius Gregory Meredith, Steve Ross-Talbot, and Ralph Benko

In a recent movie review by Capital Research Center, a conservative but consistently rigorous think tank, of the documentary Juice: Power Politics and the Grid the reviewer dryly observed:

“Although the real death toll is probably higher (officially 57, although likely many more, with nearly $200B in prosperity damage), the message in Juice is that Texans were lucky. At one point the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) electrical grid was five minutes from total failure. It could have taken a month or more to get it going again, leading to what the docuseries predicted would have been a ‘mass casualty event.’”

The Juice’s The Texas Blackout, summarizes Texas’s near catastrophe:

“In February 2021, millions of Texans lost power, and the state’s grid came within four or five minutes of a total failure that would have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. It’s hard to overstate the importance –– and complexity –– of our electric grid. But how did our most important energy network get weakened? And what can we do to fix it?”

We are not alarmists and are not complicit in the public vaunting of crises. Drama belongs more to the realm of narrative – propaganda – than to data and analysis: real news.

That said, the frailty of America’s power supply and distribution grid is, or should be, beyond doubt, a scandal. Rather than bemoan, let’s address the real question, “What can we do to fix it?”

To oversimplify, for the sake of clarity there are four major problems with America’s electric system. All four need to be addressed, systemically and simultaneously.

These are: energy generation, storage, distribution, and management. Doing so will not just make us safer. It will also make power cheaper, and thus, politically sustainable… while making power generation far more environmentally beneficial.

The primary investigator for this article is a mathematician and O.G. techie with a specialization in programming language semantics, programming language design, and distributed and concurrent computation. The second author is a British senior energy executive. The junior co-author is a veteran Washington political insider who served in or with three White Houses and two Congresses, an award-winning writer, who now specializes in emerging digital technologies.

Full disclosure, the two of us have formed a venture that, using rho calculus the premier solution for concurrent and distributed control flow, offers a piece of the puzzle of resolving America’s parlous energy state. The third author is working on the implementation of a piece of the solution in the United Kingdom.

The good news? Some of the problems that beset us are already being addressed. The better news? There are practical, affordable, technical solutions for the rest.

The bad news? Some policies in some places are making matters worse. The worst news? Many cities and states are poised on a precipice of disaster, which could cause tens, potentially even hundreds, of thousands of deaths depending on the circumstances, with almost no warning:

“…  five minutes from total failure…. leading to what the docuseries predicted would have been a ‘mass casualty event.’”

What to do?

The Good News

Let’s start with the good news.  We are already moving away from exclusively centralized power supplies – massive power generation plants (for which there will always be a role) to abundant decentralized power generation.

This means that homes, offices, businesses, government agencies, and NGOs are generating, not merely consuming, power. This cuts, perhaps dramatically, their energy bills and those of everyone on their grid.

For example, the mother of a friend of the lead coauthor, call her Sally, has signed up on Vashon Island, State of Washington, to generate electricity from the sun. This household doesn't have a battery in her home and garage (as do, for instance, Tesla owners).

She’s generating her own electricity and, with the surplus power, she's generating electricity she sells to the grid.

The power company reduces her bill by crediting—essentially paying her—for the electricity she transmits over the grid to be consumed by others. She has become both a power provider as well as a power consumer.

Call it artisanal power.

We are moving from relying mainly on a huge, megawatt centralized power plants for millions of consumers to a more balanced generation system, one with lots and lots of power providers: family homes, businesses, and neighborhoods “rolling their own.”

A Power Market

The next step? Once we see that there are agents – a term we can use for individuals and organizations like businesses and other things, potentially even AI   -- acting as both power producers and power consumers then you have the potential, and need, for a real marketplace. An agent both needs power and produces power.

So now, you have these situations where trading is to everyone's advantage. So, since trading itself has a value the next question is what's the trading infrastructure? There’s an interesting question here.

It’s About Trust

For the most part, people have historically trusted their power providers and power distributors. That said, most of these have been closely watched over by the state. We are aware of no scandalous exposés about such public utilities ripping off all their customers. There's been no Wells Fargo-style scandals in that industry.

However, the public consciousness doesn’t seem to have assimilated, or credited, how rickety, and dangerous, the power infrastructure is.  The public does not seem to understand how close we are to an event that will cause mass casualties—or there would be an unceasing political clamor.

Our lead author can say that since the late 80s and early 90s when he was at MCC -- the first industrial consortial research organization, requiring Admiral Inman to go to Congress to knock down antitrust laws to create --  it was a frequent occurrence to have the technologists who are supporting the power infrastructure come to our research lab and say “Oh my God our systems are a disaster waiting to happen! Can you help us? What advanced technologies can you bring to bear to help us?

From that, our lead author has been aware, since the early ‘90s, that our energy grid is one event away from mass casualty situations. The recent events in Texas were a very, very close call. Per our friends from the Lone Star State, Texas now is more aware than previously how close they came to disaster.

That said, even those militant Texas hombres haven’t gotten out their political torches and pitchforks to demand a solution.

Storage and Distribution

There's a much bigger transformation happening in the power distribution and power generation marketplace.  A lot of people who have bought Teslas understand Tesla tries to upsell you on solar panels and their power wall. That’s the big battery which is which is making it more and more possible for average folks to be power producers.

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

So, that's part of the transformation. That said, the other part of the transformation is that we're getting better and better at monitoring and accounting for power, both production and consumption.

We’re getting better and better at being able to have trustworthy accounting at the device level for the power that's being produced and the power that's being consumed, as opposed to just having to trust your local power company (or state regulator) who comes and reads your meter every so often.

We're getting a much better Internet-of-Things-style Energy power monitoring. That's another major piece of the puzzle. We need all the pieces of the system working together to make it reliable.

We must—and can! —make it easier for agents to collect power and then send it back to a network of agents that produce and consume power. To do that, we need to be able to monitor the electricity at the device level in a trustworthy, automated, fashion.

So. What percentage of the opportunity resides in the generation capacity? How much is in storage? How much of the opportunity resides in distribution? How much in the in the data processing?  Great questions, and we’re not going to pretend that we have the answer at our fingertips.

It appears that Tesla has already made its main bet on the collecting and storage side, notwithstanding its participation in a pilot program launched which does not appear to be scaling, at least yet. Per KXAN, in December 2022, as

“part of a pilot program with the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) approved earlier this year. PUCT approved Tesla Energy Ventures, LLC, as a provider last year, before launching this pilot. …

“The intent is to develop more ways for ERCOT customers to manage their electricity use, to their benefit and to the benefit of the Texas grid,” said Rich Parsons, PUCT spokesperson.

How would customers do that? Tesla is not actually on the monitoring side, and they're not on the redistribution side. Tesla seems to be just enabling the customer to collect electricity. You can bet your bottom dollar that that's a sizable market right there.

Currently, Tesla doesn't generate power. It doesn't distribute power. It stores power, and it doesn't account for it. It is not in the business of accounting for the allocation of the power either as to generation or consumption.

Tesla sells solar panels and makes batteries. An individual who buys one of those solar panels starts generating power. Tesla is not generating power but someone who buys a Tesla solar panel is generating power. And then the customers who buy a power wall are storing some of that power.

So, in the case of Sally on Vashon, she doesn't have a power wall. She just has solar panels, so she is generating power for her own use and to sell the extra back to some power distributor. The economics of artisanal power generation and consumption are very intricate.

What's the knock-on environmental effects of producing solar panels? Further, Sally’s son, always looking out for his mother, has lots and lots of questions about the power she's supplying back to the grid and its attenuation if it must go all the way back to Seattle and so forth.

Economists like to say, in their deadpan delivery, “de gustibus non est disputandum.”  (“In matters of taste there can be no dispute.”) Meaning if the psychic gratification Sally gets from generating, using, and selling solar power—both for “prepper-style” security and for the ecology is sufficient to induce her and those like her to buy, install, and use the panels, that means that for Sally, and those like her, there’s a sufficient ROI to make this a desirable purchase.

As costs plummet, it is likely to make straight-up economic sense, appealing to larger and larger numbers of people.

We don’t have the data to analyze the motivations of the various agents at our fingertips. But what we do know is that Tesla is getting money both from customers and subsidies and tax incentives from governments. If there's a (scare quotes!) “trickle down” from Elon Musk’s approach so that plain old customers—you and me—get some of those subsidies or tax breaks that may not be an altogether bad thing.

After all, why should corporate welfare be confined to… corporations?  (Other than that, they have opulent lobbying budgets….)

Of course, we need to be aware of waltzing with a narrative (a form of propaganda, remember?) rather than being guided by good old solid pragmatic Yankee ingenuity. We, as irredentist geeks, prefer engineers and mathematicians to politicians and social media trolls figuring out the best way to do this.

That said, at the end of the from both the perspectives of free enterprise and the environment we just wish to ensure that there's enough alignment across all the different perspectives to bring about an effective and sustainable end to the risk of mass casualties and to ensure that people are economically incentivized to participate.

Whether you're a “sell the streets!” libertarian, a metaphorical torch-and-pitchfork wielding MAGA Republican, or a Green New Deal Democrat… we don't really care… so long as the public is participating in something real and socially beneficial and sustainable both economically and ecologically.

The resolution of our real peril will be a mix of power generation, storage, distribution, and trading -- overlooked but of keenest interest at least to us, for the markets associated with all of those.

That means to eliminate the current dangerous fragility of the grid we need to provide an infrastructure to aggregate lots of different power providers and the demand of lots of power consumers. If the power consumer agrees to turn off all her household hair dryers during peak demand times, every day to save (and save the cost of) energy use, doing so will require a data-infrastructure to account for all the obligations and benefits in real time.

Basically, it's a virtualized market sitting on top of some distribution grid.  Achievable

Which, however, raises an important question. Who do people trust to provide the trading infrastructure? One answer—candidly, our favorite answer--is don't trust anybody.  Trust the code.

The proponents of decentralized digital technologies have been harping on about for almost two decades now is that we have the technology where people can trade without having to trust anybody.  The accounting can be automated.

We don't have to trust some giant power company. We can just roll out an infrastructure of trustworthy monitoring tech. That provides a big advantage in that the infrastructure provides a built-in solution that does not require trusting a third party. You can now allow all the agents—us!—to plug into the infrastructure, eventually globally.

If a power company wishes to expand their operation from, say, the UK to continental Europe the technology to enable that is here. If continental Europe has the same sorts of standardized monitoring and decent power generation and distribution systems, voila!

The trading infrastructure, on which we are here focusing, doesn't change one iota. Now, we stipulate that different jurisdictions have different service level requirements. The way power is regulated in Germany may impinge upon what the UK providers can deal with. Or vice versa. That said, the practical possibilities are vivid.

So, all of that must be carefully thought through but at least at the level of the bits and the bytes it's the same infrastructure. This makes putting a global distribution system, or a global trading system, into effect within both theoretical and practical reach.

This is something that can sit on top of a patchwork of storage and distribution systems. That's fantastic because now you can have a global system and, in the words of the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Prof. Robert Mundell “The only closed economy is the world economy.”

To get there, you need scalability. To manage the grid robustly, you need to monitor and account for the power that's available and the rights and obligations of all the agents participating in the network to do efficient trading and power allocation. At the global scale that’s billions of agents.

This cannot be accommodated by Ethereum’s seventy transactions per second. We need a network that scales as we add hardware.

And on the other side of the equation, it's not just power providers who get economic benefit from this. Agents who wish to be a trading infrastructure provider— “nodes” —provide transaction validators and will derive economic benefits for validating the trading transactions.

That need not be a single party. The validators can be Grandma, or it can be Amazon, and anyone in between.

Imagine that in “the village” it used to be the case that there was just one power generation and distribution center.

Alice and Bob and Charlene and Danielle were all consumers of power from this center, basically a hub and spoke architecture. So now Alice and Grandma and Alice and Bob and Charlene and Danielle all have Tesla solar cells and their power walls — or the equivalent from another provider of their choice, someone competing with Tesla.

Now, they're all also power generators, as well as customers.

Maybe Alice has a side business as a hairdresser. On days when she has a lot of customers, of course, her power consumption goes way up.  She might therefore prefer to cut her power consumption to times outside of peak demand (and cost), and use her generation capabilities to sell power to the grid when prices are high and buying it when prices are lower.

Where's she going to get her electricity from? If there's artisanal power — decentralized power distribution — instead of everybody drawing power from one center, there's enough connectivity to allow Alice's neighborhood to collect power from a lower-cost provider.

And the centralized power company and distributor can also participate as if they were just another agent in the village that has power production and consumption. Alice can open for business, for example, on Saturdays or Sundays, when peak consumption is low, and during whatever peak consumption weekdays, she closes shop to sell her power instead of consuming it.

Or offer surge pricing to her customers. Whatever is more profitable to her.

The math to let her calculate what is optimal for her will be simple arithmetic. When she's generating more power than she consumes, she can store it or sell it.  And will!

Making the world’s grid robust rather than fragile isn’t just beer, skittles, and noble intentions. The physical infrastructure must be laid in, or improved upon, for the connectivity. The power generators, whether artisanal, such as solar, or industrial, such as nuclear plants, need to be built, upgraded, and connected. And a scalable monitoring system needs to be in place.

One of the most interesting things, at least to us, is that here lies the possibility of a general world trading infrastructure. Specifically, a decentralized trading infrastructure such that Alice can see her neighborhood and the neighboring village over and the next village after that… but scaled for nation-states rather than villages.

As the world turns, each region comes online to generate and consume at different times. As different neighborhoods and villages join the network, Alice just gets access to bigger and bigger markets for her artisanal power, and more competition amongst the suppliers of her power needs, leading to greater market efficiencies.

We consider this development of robust decentralized power distribution and trading vitally important rather than just a bunch of nerds (us) obsessing over cool tech (the evolved distributed ledger integrated with hyperdimensional computing). Here’s why.

Hardly anybody can now credibly dispute that potentially dangerous climate events are getting more frequent, of greater intensity, and are longer lasting. With the greater frequency, intensity, and duration of climate events a mass casualty power grid failure event becomes inevitable, unless we resolve the power grid fragility.

Thus, the rickety mess of the US (and large swaths of the world’s) power grid draws closer to an event, or events, of mass casualties. Ameliorating, or, preferably, eliminating, that risk is difficult. Our power technologies are sitting on top of older technologies. Upgrading the distribution system is difficult because it's old and contains a whole lot of deferred maintenance.

photo by Zetong Li via Unsplash

The policy is complicated by honest disputes as to which power generation is better than others. And, let’s face it, upgrading high-tension wires doesn’t make for a great photo op for an ambitious politician. Much more satisfying to cut the ribbon on a new bridge!

And then, there’s the whole weaponized nature of our politics and civic discourse.

Nevertheless, lives are at stake. And last time we looked, even Congress was unable to repeal the Pareto principle, meaning we can probably get 80% of the benefits for 20% of the cost of perfection if we refuse to make the best the enemy of the good.

So, let’s focus on the lower-hanging fruit: adding in a digital management layer that is free market, rather than subsidy, driven. Welcome artisanal power!

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists uses a “Doomsday Clock” as a trope.  It’s a powerful meme that needs to be stretched beyond nuclear war. That said, we were, and are just “five minutes away” from a mass casualties event due to an obsolete power system event. Which, thanks to nerds, can readily and affordably be fixed.

Since the days of Thomas Edison… it was all hub and spoke. What we got was Tom’s, and George Westinghouse’s, top-down infrastructure.  That was then, back in the old analog days.

This is now, with the opportunity to use digital, decentralized technology to transform the management of the artisanally-enhanced power grid in the kind of market-driven ways that would have caused even Ayn Rand to blush with pleasure.

OK, maybe Ayn never blushed, not even when writing those lurid love scenes! Hayek, however, would have blushed with pleasure at this emergent order. for sure!

Artisanal power should be music to the ears of most regular people across the ideological governmental spectrum. It should be beloved both by the Hell’s Angels as well as the Hippies, by the MAGAs, and the Jacobins and the Karens. Prosperity promotes the general welfare. It’s not a dogma.

The path to safety and, no small thing, to economy, and ecology, is to pursue the transformation by conjoining the generation and distribution of power with decentralized management. This will lead directly to adapting the power supply in ways that will make it far more resilient to the more extreme climate-related events that are now occurring.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists uses a “Doomsday Clock” as a trope. It’s a powerful meme that needs to be stretched beyond nuclear war. That said, we were, and are just “five minutes away” from a mass casualties event due to an obsolete power system event. Which, thanks to nerds, can readily and affordably be fixed.

The affordable, reliable, proven path to energy safety and security? Artisanal power generation, distribution, and management.